It was late fall, and my 8-year-old daughter and I stood at the bottom of a brushy, 300-foot cliff and talus slope overlooking Blue Lake in southern Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness.
For me, it was a short climb. For a little girl much smaller than me, the hill looked downright colossal.
But I knew something about my daughter that she is only beginning to learn: her potential.
As a high school teacher and coach over the last 15 years, I’ve made some disheartening observations regarding the health and welfare of our society’s children.
Kids are perhaps the best reflection of America’s culture. I’ve seen too many kids influenced by too much television. I’ve seen too many kids hooked by commercials advertising "extra value" meals and flashy technological advancements to make our lives "easier." I’ve seen too many kids too eager for motorized all-terrain equipment that can "get us there faster."
You’ve probably seen the statistics. Obesity is rampant among American youngsters. Once they’ve learned bad eating and exercise habits as children, they will likely carry those habits into adulthood.
I don’t need the statistics. I’ve seen it on the faces and bodies of too many kids.
"C’mon," I told my little girl. "You can do it!"
She looked dubious. We both remembered all too well a similar day when she was 4 years old, spent bushwhacking around a nearby wilderness lake.
"This is the worst day of my life!" she protested that day. I remember holding my laughter and thinking to myself, if only you could be so fortunate.
So we began scrambling up the hill, pulling ourselves hand-over-hand, using the thick brush as handholds. I kept her safely right in front of me.
"Step here," I guided her. "Grab that branch there. There you go!"
It is no coincidence that the "more is better" message that saturates kids’ lives, correlates with their poor health. The easy way has caused a disconnection with the natural world, while shortening the potential of their lives.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that while our kids become less in control of their own health, they are becoming less in touch with nature.
For my family, getting away from the bustle of life and commercialism has meant traveling to land that has changed little over the last few centuries; wilderness. Whether backpacking into the Sky Lakes Wilderness nearby, tossing a fly into a stream or lake in the Rockies, or pursuing blue grouse with a shotgun, getting back to the natural world has been a challenge for my two young children but a confidence booster as well. Though at times it comes under protest, they know that their comfort zones can always be extended.
American families deserve — no, American families need — places where they can get away and work hard in healthy exercise. We need wilderness. We need rivers and lakes, clean and free. It pains me when desk-bound politicians label people who advocate for wild country and a clean and healthy environment as "extremists." To me, there’s nothing more traditional, wholesome and American than a vigorous backcountry adventure, no matter how small.
I am grateful my father instilled in me at a very young age an appreciation of natural settings, overcoming obstacles and spirited adventure. Former President Theodore Roosevelt termed that lifestyle "the strenuous life."
My daughter and I were getting a good taste of the strenuous life as we clawed our way up the hillside. She paused to catch her breath, and I thought she might balk at climbing further. But when she got her wind back, she pressed on.
As we reached the top of the cliff to peer down at Blue Lake, my daughter’s expression said it all. She radiated confidence, vigor and pure joy. It was an experience that matured her beyond her years.
"Daddy, that was a lot easier than it looked," she said. "Can we do it again?"
What a difference four years can make. Now, it looks like I’ll be sweating in my future, following her lead. We should all be so lucky.
Mike Beagle is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former U.S. Army artillery officer, he is a teacher in Oregon’s Rogue River Basin and serves as chairman of the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
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